It’s an early Thursday morning and a slow trickle of clients are coming through the doors of A Friendly Manor, a center for homeless women in West Oakland. The sign-up sheet for showers that day is almost full, and the women take their seats around the common room, their belongings stacked next to them and their eyes and bodies heavy from the previous night.
The door to the closet, where they can get all kinds of personal toiletries including pads, tampons and adult diapers, is half open, ready for the next handout at 2.15 p.m. Crates full of packages of menstrual products, labeled according to size and type, line the back wall of the closet.
Every month, homeless and low-income women and girls in the East Bay have to contend with the high cost of feminine hygiene products. For some women, these products are a luxury they just cannot afford. California Assemblymember Christina Garcia, who has recently sponsored state legislation to lower the cost of feminine hygiene products and make them available in schools and homeless centers, estimated in 2016 that women in California pay around $7 per month for tampons and pads—and they must do it for 40 years.
“I have seen women come in who have made homemade tampons and pads going into toxic shock syndrome,” said Heather Rose, center manager at A Friendly Manor. “One woman took rubber bands and toilet paper, rolled them together to make a tampon.” Other times, she said, she has seen women come in with blood running down their legs.
A Friendly Manor provides not only feminine hygiene products for homeless women, but laundry facilities and a place to bathe. “We open the closet twice a day so people can get pads and tampons during their periods,” said Sister Marti McCarthy, the center’s director. They also give out underwear, as well as adult diapers, because it’s so difficult for women living on the street to launder their underwear during their periods.
For homeless women, she continued, it’s also hard to find a sanitary way to dispose of used hygiene products, or even use the bathroom in private. “West Oakland is unique that under every freeway there are tents and people camping, [but] there’s only one camp that’s considered authorized where they have trash cans and bathrooms,” she said. “I have watched a woman pull down her pants and pee in the street, as there just aren’t any facilities.”
“Us girls, we’ve definitely had to team up … somebody will hold a blanket up so that somebody can use the bathroom on the street,” said Melissa Pena, who has been homeless for nearly five months and regularly uses the facilities at A Friendly Manor.
Dealing with sanitation, she continued, “that’s the hardest when you’re on your period.”
In the Bay Area, and across the U.S., nonprofits, politicians and students are advocating for low-cost, or free, feminine hygiene products to be placed in homeless shelters, public schools and women’s jails. Nationally, the leader is the Free the Tampons Foundation, founded in 2013, which advocates that sanitary products should be free and accessible in every bathroom outside of the home, just as toilet paper and soap are. The group lobbies the government at local and national levels, and members meet with business owners to encourage them to place free feminine hygiene products in their bathrooms.
Locally, The Blossom Project, founded in 2016 in San Francisco by Tine Christensen, aims to provide homeless women in San Francisco, Marin and the East Bay with monthly period packs, which contain tampons, pads, wet wipes and a bottle of water. Christensen, originally from Denmark, found the homeless problem startling after moving to the Bay Area. “It’s really hard living here and seeing so many homeless people who are struggling every day,” she said. “I have a social work background, so I thought, ‘How can I make a difference?’”
Christensen read articles about the problem, and also spoke with a formerly homeless woman who told her how much shame having a period can cause for someone living on the street, and how there are few places to turn to for help or sanitary products. “As a woman, we often feel very uncomfortable in our body when we have our period,” Christensen said. “Imagine getting it when you’re homeless.”
In September, 2016, the San Francisco Homeless Outreach Team gave out 300 Blossom packs. “We’ve handed out another round since then in San Francisco, and Berkeley has had one drop,” Christensen said. “We are currently working with Oakland Raiders Booster Club to expand our project into Oakland, we are expecting to deliver 100 bags to homeless Oakland women in April.”
“The women feel so grateful when they get this basic need,” said Christensen, who realized the monthly delivery also provided an opportunity to offer women other support. “Next time you can say, ‘What about coming to a clinic to get help for other things?’”
But not all homeless and low-income services in the East Bay are able to provide tampons, the way The Blossom Project and A Friendly Manor do. For example, food banks often do not have the funds to provide menstrual products, and their mission statements prioritize the distribution of food over other products.
Michael Altfest, from the Alameda County Community Food Bank, said they only provide food to the 240 local agencies they work with, such as food pantries. “We only deal in food; that is our primary business. Occasionally we get nonfood products donated, which we can then help distribute to our local agencies,” Altfest said. “But we know anecdotally that our agencies are usually looking for [hygiene products]. They’re in demand—diapers and feminine products are requested.”
Homeless shelters, food banks and family centers are often unable to purchase feminine hygiene products, despite requests from members of the community. Daniel Johnson, operations director at the Davis Street Family Resource Centre in San Leandro, said their budgets restrict what they are allowed to buy. “The grants that we receive and funding we have is restricted to buying particular food-type items. Those dollars are pretty well earmarked,” he said.
“As far as hygiene and feminine products go, we get donations sometimes,” Johnson continued. “There’s church groups who do drives for hygiene products and they give them to us, and we give them out to families and homeless people as and when they need them.”
Johnson said sometimes stores such as Target will donate unsellable hygiene products to local charities, but these donations come in randomly and are not specific items that shelter users may have requested.
Similarly, Janet Bruce from the Richmond Emergency Food Pantry (REFP) said that her agency mainly supplies just food packages to the local community. “We don’t give out any feminine hygiene products—we never have and I’ve worked in this industry for over 40 years,” said Bruce. “We can advocate for it—I would be most happy to advocate for it. I’ve never particularly thought about it … but I can imagine that they’re very much needed.”
The REFP orders their resources from the Contra Costa Food Bank, and Bruce said this restricts what they can offer. “I order the food for our pantry and I have never seen on their buy list any kind of feminine hygiene products,” she said. But, she added, “I have seen hair dye on the list.”
Katie Derrig, operations manager for Operation Dignity, a homeless shelter in Oakland, said their beds are reserved for single male veterans, so they don’t offer feminine hygiene products in house. “Our street outreach team does carry feminine hygiene products and distributes them to women who are homeless and request them,” she added.
For some East Bay organizations, the demand for feminine hygiene products has been low. Mary Kuhn, communications director for Catholic Charities of the East Bay, said they have only encountered a couple of requests. “Because it hasn’t come up much, we have not developed a more systematic approach to this situation at this time. If this issue came up more often, then we would seek a process or research other resources,” Kuhn said.
The issue of access to menstrual products and sanitation is not just a problem for homeless women. In 2016, the Oakland Unified school District’s All City Council (ACC) Student Union conducted their annual student action research project, which was presented to the school board last May. One of their recommendations was to improve free access to sanitary products for students, as well as having better disposal systems in school bathrooms.
Gema Quetzal, the ACC Student Union Health and Wellness Director, said their research found that a significant number of schools in the district did not provide adequate facilities for disposal, or easy access to hygiene products when students needed them.
“In bathrooms, there was no place to put pads. You can’t put them in the toilets, and girls weren’t comfortable having to take them outside to find a waste bin,” Quetzal said. “The environment became unhealthy in a lot of the bathrooms that we were seeing. Even if they did change their pads, [students] would leave them on the floor or clogging the toilet.”
Students also complained about the accessibility of products in schools. “There was no access to tampons and pads, and even if they had access they would be very expensive,” said Quetzal. “Students were talking about how there was no access to pads, but in some schools they would offer free condoms.”
“Students were saying, ‘Why should I pay 25 cents for a pad or tampon at my school when someone else can get a free condom?’” she continued.
Raquel Jimenez, community engagement coordinator for the school district, wrote via email that the ACC Student Union team met with a member of the district’s facilities staff, Charles Cole, in 2016 to discuss their recommendations. “One of the primary concerns from students was the lack of access to sanitary products, and the lack of access to disposal of sanitary products. Mr. Cole committed to incorporating [the] purchase of disposal containers in his budget for the 16-17 school year,” Jimenez said.
The facilities department also agreed to share their quarterly facilities inspections with the students, to help solve the issue.
However, Aurora Lopez, the district’s student engagement liaison, wrote via email, “the facilities recommendation was not identified for this year,” the 2017-18 term. So far, no changes have been made to make sanitary products more freely accessible in Oakland schools, but Lopez said the recommendation will be revisited this summer.
“I am hoping to be part of the project again this summer,” said Quetzal. “I will go and push for this to happen. It affects me and a lot of others around us.”
Free sanitary products are, in fact, already available in California prisons. Allie Powell, a spokesperson for California’s Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, wrote via email that tampons and pads are free of charge to all inmates and are made available at all times.
“If the inmates prefer a different brand or type than what is provided by the institution, inmates and/or family members can order feminine hygiene items through approved vendors on quarterly packages,” she said.
According to Powell, these products have always been available to female inmates in California, but in September 2016, Governor Jerry Brown, Oakland’s former mayor, codified the practice into law with Senate Bill 1433.
SB 1433 states: “any person incarcerated in state prison who menstruates shall, upon request, have access to and be allowed to use materials necessary for personal hygiene with regard to their menstrual cycle and reproductive system.” It also requires that all female inmates have access to family planning services, physicians and contraceptives upon their request.
But in the same year, Brown prevented the cost of feminine hygiene products sold in stores from being lowered by vetoing Assembly Bill 1561, which would have ended the state’s “tampon tax.” In California, menstrual products are still taxed as luxury items, rather than medical necessities. According to California Assemblymember Cristina Garcia (D-Bell Gardens), the tax currently generates $20 million per year for the state.
AB 1561, sponsored by Garcia, would have exempted all menstrual products, tampons, pads, cups and sponges from state sales tax. “This is the only gender-specific tax in our code,” she said. “Our budgets and our laws are a reflection of our values and we should value women and treat their health needs as essential.”
“I have always been frustrated that I get taxed for having a uterus,” Garcia said.
Izzy Gardon, a spokesperson for Brown, wrote via email that the governor vetoed this and six other pieces of legislation at the time. In his official veto message, Brown wrote, “Each of these bills creates a new tax break or expands an existing tax break. In total, these bills would reduce revenues by about $300 million through 2017-18. … As I said last year, tax breaks are the same as new spending—they both cost the General Fund money.”
This month, Garcia introduced Assembly Bill 479, another attempt to end the sales tax on menstrual products. This time it also includes a tax exemption for infant and adult diapers, as well as a proposal for offsetting the loss of $20 million in taxes by increasing the excise tax for liquors that are under 100-proof. “By increasing the excise tax on liquor a little under two pennies per cocktail and a little over $1 per gallon, we’re able to not just pay for the tampon tax exemption, but also for the diaper tax exemption both for babies and adults,” Garcia said.
Garcia has also recently introduced Assembly Bill 10, which seeks to provide free menstrual products in schools, universities and homeless shelters across California. The bill has passed the Assembly Education Committee and has been passed onto the Appropriations Committee.
In other areas of the US, campaigns have already made sanitary products more accessible, both financially and physically. In 2016, New York became the sixth state to eliminate the “tampon tax,” along with Minnesota, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Maryland and Massachusetts. In the same year, the New York City Council voted unanimously to become the first US city to provide free tampons and pads in public schools, homeless shelters and prisons.
Meanwhile, for homeless and low-income women in the East Bay, access to these products remains a challenge, but a high priority. “I’m sure everybody would say, ‘If my periods could just go away, that would easier,’” said Pena, who relies on A Friendly Manor for her feminine hygiene supplies, adding that a bathroom or PortaPotty available around the clock, and stocked with supplies, would be helpful.
Center manager Heather Rose said the problem is extremely difficult to deal with due to the lack of financial assistance from the government for organizations such as theirs, and because people don’t realize that women’s access to these products is a basic health need.
“I really believe if we started viewing the people that are in this situation as humans, that they need more help, then people would step up and do something,” she said.